Kinch Na Shannack owes the Takers Guild a small fortune for his education as a thief, which includes (but is not limited to) lock-picking, knife-fighting, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, trap-making, plus a few small magics. His debt has driven him to lie in wait by the old forest road, planning to rob the next traveler that crosses his path.
But today, Kinch Na Shannack has picked the wrong mark.
Galva is a knight, a survivor of the brutal goblin wars, and handmaiden of the goddess of death. She is searching for her queen, missing since a distant northern city fell to giants.
Unsuccessful in his robbery and lucky to escape with his life, Kinch now finds his fate entangled with Galva’s. Common enemies and uncommon dangers force thief and knight on an epic journey where goblins hunger for human flesh, krakens hunt in dark waters, and honor is a luxury few can afford.
First, I’d like to thank Will O’Mullane and Gollancz for the ARC which has in no way influenced the review I’ve written.
The Blacktongue Thief is a book that comes along occasionally, it’s a book sprawling with its own cultures, rich in world-building, strong in characterisation and absolutely unputdownable. Buehlman brings old fantasy tropes out of retirement and gives them fresh new jobs. Kinch is a thief you’ll want to follow.
The plot is fantastic and, in short, is the story as told by Kinch, a Prank level thief in the Takers Guild, who in indebted to them because of the schooling in Low Arts he’s received – and that’s the way the Takers like it. Their pupils rarely get away from them and there is the crux of their power. Except, they are promising he will be heavily compensated for this new job: follow the Ispanthian birder, a warrior with a war corvid for a pet (yes, you heard it right. A war corvid … as in the bird. A birder, eh?) and he’s to follow her to Wostrim, which has been invaded by the giants. Why? He doesn’t know yet. That’s on a need-to-know basis, and right now he doesn’t need to know. Only, the trip there will be an adventure in itself. It’s something of a marvel to watch unfold, absolutely bonkers, crazy and a downright riot of a good time: there’s goblin bloodsports, humans being seasoned, did I mention war corvids? (well, they are very cool), great and small magic, cantrips galore, magical tattoos, giant invaders, krakens, ships, krakens and ships, duels and much, much more. It’s certainly a book after my own heart. It’s all the things so very reminiscent of the fantasy genre moulded into something new and very lovable, something dark, wholesome, and intriguing. But it doesn’t take itself seriously, and that’s not to say it’s a comedy, just that the character voice is authentic and genuine and very human in the darkest of moments.
Welcome to an absolute masterclass in worldbuilding; there’s histories, gods, clashing cultures and this in just how different characters present themselves in layers of lives years: each one a tapestry of nature and nurture, and foreign cultures that leap off the page. It’s written in the way they walk, talk and act. It oozes authenticity. And my favourite part of this is the oral history we experience, passed from character to character, as it would be in real life, which turns infodumps into cleverly into the repetitiveness of people who has experienced it, who are scarred by it and who won’t let the stories die. All this is done so well you won’t even know without it’s happening. It’s just great characterisation interacting with a world that spans the total sum of pages at great depth.
One final note is that it is apparent that Buehlman was a horror writer, or is a horror writer, because damned, among the lighter notes, there’s bits that’ll stick with you. When the goblins come out of stories and enter the fray, there’s certainly bits that’ll turn your stomach. And I appreciated how terrifying this was to read as it’s not something I usually find in fantasy.
Overall, with its absolutely intoxicating character voice, and way of convincing you not to put the book down until you’ve finished (full disclosure: I pretty much read this in one sitting), it’s a book I’d urge you to read now if you’re a lover of great writing.